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The Washington Post reports that the national trend toward conscientious recycling may be in danger of subsiding, since for the first in a number of years the number of aluminum cans being thrown away was greater than the number of cans recycled.

It would not be accurate to suggest that all Americans were recycling their aluminum, paper and plastic; in fact, only about a third of the nation’s trash is recycled, though that is a significantly greater amount than in 1987, when just 10 percent was recycled.

The Post says that the problem is both complacency and economics. Now that recycling is mainstream, the Post writes, its momentum has slowed, with a number of cities reducing or even suspending recycling programs because of budget pressures. These policy shifts are not being met with protests because recycling is considered a mainstream activity, no longer the hip, politically correct activity that would merit angry response from the citizenry.

"To some extent recycling is being undone by its very success," Allen Hershkowitz, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Post.

According to the Post, recycling of aluminum cans peaked in 1992 at 65 percent of all cans sold; to less than 50 percent last year. (Though the numbers are different depending on the source, there is general agreement that there has been a significant decline.) What makes this particularly interesting is that aluminum recycling has traditionally been a pretty good revenue generator, far greater than, say , paper or plastic.
KC's View:
It seems to us that recycling generally tends to be reactive, not pro-active. The Post story notes that a lot of the pro-recycling movement occurred when there were television stories about jammed up landfills and barges loaded with garbage looking for a place to dock and unload. Since the media attention isn’t there right now, the bloom is off the rose (though that may be the wrong metaphor when talking about garbage).

While the reaction at retail may be to hope that they can get rid of all those recycling machines, we think that would, in the long-term, be the wrong move. This may be the calm before the storm, and those media stories about landfills and homeless barges could once again be on the evening news. And this time, the reaction from government could be harsher.

We think it would make sense for stores to continue to encourage the use of their recycling equipment, even to the point of sponsoring recycling drives with community youth groups. This is an easy issue to stay out in front of, and it makes sense to do so – environmental sense, and business sense.